Shellfish Inspire New Adhesives

By | November 25, 2008

shell-fish-01Chemists can learn from some shellfish. Mussels, for example, produce an adhesive that sticks strongly to metal and stone, even under water. Chemists have reproduced the protein responsible for this in a synthetic material that contains the same adhesive elements. Irrespective of whether the adhesive is completely made up of these elements or whether they represent just a tenth of its make-up, adhesion is equally good.

These findings were made by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. It might be possible to use the 90% of the polymers that are not necessary to create a good bond for other functions by providing them with chemical adjuncts which will allow them to adhere to surfaces other than metal or stone.

Some shellfish have a hard life: when they settle at the bottom of the sea close to the coast, the constant surging to and fro of the surf pulls at them. So that they are not washed away by the waves, the shellfish use special proteins to attach themselves firmly to a foundation – an ability that engineers still find difficult to achieve: adhesion under water. The shellfish can do this thanks to the amino acid dihydroxyphenylalanine, also known as dopa. Its chemical structure allows it to form very stable bonds with metals and minerals and is contained in the adhesion proteins with which shellfish attach themselves to the sea bed….  The force required to pull a single polymer from the surface was always the same: 67 piconewtons. This is equivalent to a millionth of the weight force of a flea. This force alone could not keep a shellfish on the bottom of the sea. However, the creatures attach themselves firmly with a dab containing innumerable polymer chains, which allows them to brave the movement of the waves. – sd

What is the minimum number of pico-newtons the skin on the palm of your hand can detect?

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